Bach's Requiem Mass | JSBachFOA.Org

Bach's Requiem Mass

Music by Johann Sebastian Bach

Settings from the Traditional (Tridentine) Latin Requiem Mass

Arranged by Ed Kotski
Wreckage from the South Tower, seen from the base of the still-standing North Tower - September 11, 2001
Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla ...
Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.
(From the traditional Mass for the Dead)

Wreckage from the South Tower, seen from the base of the still-standing North Tower
(September 11, 2001)

© 2003 by Ed Kotski
All Rights Reserved

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Dedicated to the memory of those killed at the World Trade Center, September 11, 2001 and especially to the rescue workers who stood their ground.

Bach's Secret

A Requiem? Johann Sebastian Bach didn't write a Requiem, did he?

Well, yes he did, if you know where to look. You see, Bach had a secret which helped make his music so interesting and original that it's never been equaled, a secret which he probably shared with no one except his sons and perhaps a few favored pupils. Simply put, Bach composed his finest works by basing them on sacred texts, which by their own form determined the accents, the phrasing, and even the length of the music.

His genius let him transform texts which were as often prose as poetry into music, music with familiar, rythmically repetitive phrases, while hiding it's true nature, the reflection of Psalms, Chants, and Scripture.

I discovered Bach's secret while working on the Goldberg Variations, which have been a mystery to scholars for almost three hundred years. They are actually thirty two settings from the old Tridentine Mass, and they are the Rosetta Stone to Bach's music. As it happens, Beethoven also solved their riddle, but instead of telling anyone, he simply used them as a model for his own Diabelli Variations, another mystery and another hidden Mass.

Who Wrote Bach's Music?

This sounds like a silly question, but there's a point to it. Some of Bach's acknowledged works are based on prayers from the Requiem Mass and some also incorporate the Gregorian Chant melodies which went with the prayers. I've found other pieces which although bearing Bach's name are not universally believed to be from his hand, but which are also based on the words or on both the words and the chants of sacred texts such as the Requiem, perhaps the dominant characteristic of Bach's music.


First, Bach made frequent use of liturgical texts upon which he based many of his instrumental works; Second, he also used the Gregorian melodies related to the texts, where they existed, and when doing so suited him; Third, although I'm not sure, I don't think that any other composer of his day did what Bach did; Fourth, for these reasons, and without strong evidence to the contrary, I would suspect Bach's hand in any piece which is already associated with him and which incorporates hidden sacred texts with or without chant melodies. This does not mean that he personally wrote every piece which meets these criteria, but it does suggest that he had a hand in writing them.

The Test

I'd like to propose a test for determining whether or not Bach wrote a given piece. It consists of three parts, repetition, language, and counterpoint, and if Bach's methods are unique, it should be a reliable indicator of his authorship. The first part, repetition, consists simply in playing the piece over and over again. If you soon grow tired of it, it's probably not by Bach. The second part, language, has been overlooked until now. Bach drew from the religious literature, and if appropriate words are found to fit an instrumental piece, that's the second indication of a match. The third part, counterpoint, is satisfied if standard melodies, traditionally associated with the words, form acceptable counterpoints to the written notes. The fact that Bach would use such counterpoints seems reasonable after the fact, but they certainly surprised me when I first found them.

The open question, of course, is whether other composers used the same techniques. Some, like Buxetehude, Kuhnau and Reinken might have come close, but Bach's use of the Latin texts, quietly and consistently, over many decades, seems unique to me. For now I'm suggesting that if it looks like Bach's music and it sounds like Bach's music and it feels like Bach's music, it probably is Bach's music. Someone will eventually answer the question, but in the meantime I think that if Bach's secret were actually a common practice, we would have known about it long before now.

That Old Time Religion

I, and my dear old dad before me, grew up with the Tridentine Mass, when funerals were still conducted in Latin. Besides the Funeral Mass for an Adult, the Missa Pro Defunctis or Mass for the Dead, there was a shortened version which left out a few prayers specific to the burial but kept the rest, and which was sung to commemorate the monthly or yearly anniversary of a death. You were only buried once, but you could be remembered as often as your family wanted to commission a Mass, and so the Gregorian settings, especially the Requiem Aeternam, the Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei were often heard during the week.

The power and familiarity of these prayers inspired the concert pieces. Durufle, Faure, Verdi, Mozart, all could safely assume that their listeners would recognize the words and the music, and that they had absorbed the association with death and the grave. Bach too would have been drawn to the Requiem, but his audience in the Protestant north of Germany might not have been so appreciative.


Bach's music has often been likened to the great Gothic cathedrals, and if we look carefully we can see how he put it together, note by note, stone by musical stone. Workmen have always used scaffolds, platforms they can stand on while the walls rise above the ground, and so did Bach. If we wanted to build a cathedral, we'd make our scaffolding fit the walls, but that wasn't Bach's way. He built his walls to fit the scaffolds, which he found ready-made in the Bible and in the prayers of the Roman Catholic Liturgy.

He wrote his music to fit the texts, which themselves had been refined and polished over the centuries, and as a result were not only beautiful but durable. His music took on these characteristics, and more importantly, kept them after the texts were removed, like construction scaffolds, and hidden from sight. Why has his technique gone unrecognized for so many years? One reason is that many of his texts were in Latin.


We owe an enormous debt to Latin. Although it's no longer a popular second language and a liturgical language, as it was in Bach's time, it lives on as the foundation of our own speech and in the words of our finest music. Latin is a natural language for song with its richness of vowels, its flexible word order, and its pleasant rhythms. Sung properly, it sounds beautiful. (The "classical" pronunciation, however, is an abomination. See my "Bach's Mass in Goldberg" for Winston Churchill's diatribe on the embarrassments to which a great language has been subjected.)

Bach studied Latin at Ohrdruf as a boy and developed a proficiency in it which served him for the rest of his life. This is well known. As far as I know, however, no one (except for me and Beethoven) has realized that he put this knowledge to good use in composing many of his instrumental masterpieces. All music lovers are familiar with the Mass in B Minor and the Magnificat, and they accept Bach's use of latin in these pieces as perfectly natural. Not so many, though, know the words to his organ works, or even suspect that they exist, let alone that they determine the musical structure. In fact, it's this textual foundation that gives Bach's music its surprising variety of rythmic patterns.

His liturgical sources not only provided him with an essentially endless supply of inspiration, but by their nature had the additional and surprising result that for the last three hundred years, throughout the world, unwitting worshippers have been offering up their daily prayers to Bach's God.

The Order of the Mass for the Dead

Bach chose individual sections from the Funeral Mass instead of grouping them together in an ordered set like the Goldbergs. Here are the prayers I've identified, in the order that they occurred during the Funeral Mass. I've presented my arrangements in a somewhat different order, because it makes it easier to describe their characteristics.

The Subvenite began the ceremony, followed by the Requiem Aeternam, the Kyrie, and so on to the Lux Aeterna, near the end of the Mass. Technically, the Mass was over when the Absolution of the Corpse (the Non Intres and the Libera Me) took place, but to the those in the pews, it seemed one continuous service. The In Paradisum was sung at the end, as the body was brought out of the church or, in procession to the grave. The Ego Sum Resurrectio was usually said at the grave.

I've associated with each Prayer from the Mass the organ music it inspired. Note that the Gloria and the Credo were not part of the Requiem.

Subvenite - Prelude in G Minor from the Eight Little Preludes and Fugues for the Organ (ELPFO)
Requiem Aeternam (Introit) - Great Fantasia in G Minor
Kyrie Eleison - Great Fantasia in G Minor
Dies Irae (Sequence) - The Little Fugue in G Minor (BVW 578)
Domine Jesu Christe (Offertory) - Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (ELPFO)
Lux Aeterna (Communion) - Prelude in E Minor (ELPFO)
Non Intres in Judicium - Great Fugue in G Minor
Libera Me Domine - Great Fugue in G Minor
Pater Noster and Incidental Prayers, Versicles, and Responses - Great Fugue in G Minor
Absolve Quaesumus - Fugue in G Minor (ELPFO)
In Paradisum - Fugue in G Minor (ELPFO) and the Fugue in E Minor (ELPFO)
Ego Sum Resurrectio - Fugue in E Minor (ELPFO)

The full text of each prayer with its translation can be found at the end of the associated organ piece.

The Little Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578)

The Little Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578) is one of Bach's most popular organ works, and I think it would be fascinating to hear Bach play it. When played at a brisk tempo it's a jaunty little piece, and unless you know the words, you won't suspect the misery and calamity it describes. Played a little slower, it's inner meaning starts to come out. It's based on the Dies Irae or Day of Wrath.

Looking back, it seems that it took me forever to be able to play it in public, and even after practicing it over and over I still liked it. I've also found its text and its counterpoint, so it's a good example for all three parts of the authorship test. I've put it first in this collection, even though the Dies Irae was sung towards the middle of the Mass, because it shows so well how Bach used existing texts, and in this case melodies, as scaffolds to compose an "instrumental" fugue. Although the words fit perfectly, which is how I initially identified it, there's more. Look a little closer and you'll see that Bach anticipated Elgar in writing his own Enigma piece.

Here's what Schonberg's has to say in his Lives of the Great Composers: "By 1900, Elgar was the most famous composer in England, especially after the tremendous success of the Enigma Variations in 1899. This orchestral work was a musical picture of his friends." Elgar also said that "the main theme itself had for a counterpoint 'a theme that is not heard'. Nobody has identified that mysterious unheard theme, the enigma of the Enigma." Bach did the same thing almost two hundred years earlier, except he didn't tell anyone about it.

Bach's Little Fugue also has "a theme that is not heard" for its own unstated counterpoint, the old Gregorian melody for the Dies Irae. It's not the only piece in which Bach used a hidden theme to suggest his own notes, but it's the first one I found. I've shown the original chant on an upper staff, in rectangular notes. The Dies Irae is a First Mode chant, which means it uses a scale whose notes correspond to the re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, re of the conventional major scale. I've shown it notated with one flat, to illustrate the re, mi, fa sequence as g, a, b-flat, the same notes as those of the descending D Minor Melodic Scale.

While I was looking for the match between the notes of the chant and Bach's lines, I ran into a few spots where the two sets of notes simply don't want to go together. A typical case occurs in Measure 12 where an f sharp in the fugue clashes with the f natural in the chant. I couldn't find a way to reconcile the two notes, until the thought crossed my mind that the problem might be with the fugue itself, and not with the chant. I'm only guessing, but it's just possible that the sharp was added by an overzealous editor. (Who, while he was at it, might have added a few other accidentals here and there.) [I'm not so sure about this any more, but I'm leaving it in for now. - EK 2011]

The cadence has more bite without the sharp. I've shown the sharp with a question mark not because I think it is an error but because it might be. I hope to get an answer someday, even if I have to wait until I can ask Bach about it.

Dies Irae

The Dies Irae, or "Day of Wrath", is one of the most powerful combinations of words and notes ever put together. If Bach had set just one prayer from the Requiem, my guess is that this would be it.

I hadn't heard the Dies Irae sung for many years and I decided to do my own translation. Most that I'd seen cater to the poetry and the general sense of the prayer rather than the literal meaning of the words, and I was surprised by how vividly the Latin describes earth's last day, the day of judgment.

Here's the famous trumpet "scattering" its sound like seed throughout the graveyard, waking the dead and calling them out of their graves. The soul is "snatched" from the gates of Hell. It's also a lesson in persistence. After painting an awful vision of the terrors of the Last Judgement, the prayer makes one last effort to persuade the Almighty to spare us from the fate that at least some of us deserve. Paraphrased loosely, it says "Look, Lord, we both know that maybe I really should be sent to the fires of Hell, but considering all the time, effort, and suffering you've already invested in me, you don't want to give up now, do you?" And when the goats are cast into the piercing flames, we want to be standing on God's right side, with the sheep.

I read somewhere that the Dies Irae, as old as it is, is probably based on the even older Libera Me Domine, which uses the slightly different word order Dies Illa, Dies Irae.

The Eight Little Preludes and Fugues for the Organ

I believe that a large percentage of Bach's instrumental music is based on sacred texts, and that at least some of it is also based on Gregorian Chant melodies. For this collection, I've selected several pieces which are directly based on the prayers of the classical Requiem Mass. Three of them, the Little Fugue and the Great Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor are, as far as I know, still attributed to Bach, and not to some musical Bacon.

The Eight Little Preludes and Fugues for the Organ, though, have always been looked at with at least suspicion, if not outright hostility. When I was playing, I got a lot of mileage out of them, so it grieves me to read that modern scholars dismiss them out of hand as the work of an unknown, just as it surprises me that they have put some of my other favorites in the same category.

Klaus Eidam makes the very interesting point that a good deal of Bach scholarship is based on repetition. I've had a little experience myself with this form of psittacism (I've also had to wait almost fifty years to use this word), and I'd like to share it with you. In my early days as an engineer, I found several references to a "major disaster in Prague shortly after World War One". All of the authors were presumably refering to the same incident, and I thought it strange that they all used the same words.

Our company librarian, a born researcher named Sam Sass, did some digging and found that according to the official archives of Prague, a small transformer had exploded, as these things do from time to time, making "a very pretty sight", but causing only minor damage.

What does this have to do with the Little Preludes and Fugues? Spitta cites an early manuscript which shows, after Bach's name, a big question mark (?) which is probably the source of all the doubt. I wonder if it's also another major disaster in Prague. Spitta sees no reason for the question mark, and Schweitzer feels that the pieces were written by Bach himself as practice pieces for his two older sons. I'd like to suggest another possibility.

They might represent exercises given to the sons, with suggestions from the father, with the goal of memorializing their mother, Maria Barbara, who had died in 1720. I suspect that they were intended to combine composition, organ, and libretto techniques, and just as important, the usefulness of Latin texts in suggesting music. When their mother died, Friedemann was ten and Emanuel was six, and within at the most a few years, both boys could probably have written pieces at this level, and certainly so with some help from their father.

The fact that the three preludes and fugues go well with prayers from the Requiem suggests that Bach's hand was not far from the manuscript. The fact that seven major prayers from the Requiem are included in them suggests that they are not independent pieces, collected at random. The fact that the three differ in their level of sophistication suggests they might not all be from the same composer. If Bach and his two older sons had been artists, they'd have left us Maria Barbara's portrait. Instead, being musicians, they would have more naturally remembered her in music.

In any event, some of Bach's lessons must have taken root, because I heard a CPE Bach organ piece not long ago which sounded very much like a Kyrie Eleison.

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